The developer of a controversial project in South Williamsburg was hit with a restraining order yesterday that temporarily bars the construction of eight buildings on the former Pfizer site. The move came after several Brooklyn residents and activist groups filed a lawsuit claiming that the city failed to protect communities of color when it cleared the way for the new buildings in the Broadway Triangle area. Plaintiffs claim that the city and Mayor de Blasio ignored their obligations under federal law when they approved a rezoning for the project.
The plaintiffs, led by a coalition of churches in the Broadway Triangle area, argue that the Pfizer project will raise rents in the surrounding area, causing residents of color, and especially Latino families, to be pushed out. Three of the plaintiffs have already suffered landlord harassment and are in danger of losing their homes, the suit claims.
Broadway Triangle has been a point of contention since 2009, when local activists sued over the city’s plan to develop numerous plots of land near the Pfizer site. Plaintiffs accused the developers, led by the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, of favoring the Hasidic Jewish population over people of color, since many of the affordable units in the development would have three or more bedrooms. In 2012, a federal judge barred the city from further developing the area, and in December of last year, the city finally agreed to seek a new developer for the city-owned land. But the question of the privately-owned Pfizer sites– located on two trapezoidal blocks bounded by Harrison Avenue, Union Avenue, Gerry Street, and Walton Street– still remained.
The lawsuit claims that Rabsky Group, the developers of the Pfizer site, are, like the former developers of the city-owned plots, favoring Hasidic Jewish families, since as many as 40 percent of units are expected to have three or more bedrooms. “Large unit sizes disproportionately favor White, Hasidic families who tend to have significantly larger households, at the expense of Black and Latino families with smaller household sizes,” the suit affirms. (Rabsky Group declined Bedford + Bowery’s request for comment on the recent restraining order.)
In 2015, when protesters rallied against the city-owned development, Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, told us those accusations were anti-Semitic, and that the application process for affordable housing would be race blind and conducted by the city government.
Still, plaintiffs like Los Sures Lucha, an action group fighting displacement and tenant harassment in North Brooklyn, fear that the Pfizer project, with its 1,146 predominantly market-rate units, will bring “an influx of approximately 4,072 residents into the community, most of whom will be wealthy and predominately White,” per the complaint. As evidence that the project will displace low-income people of color from the surrounding area, the complaint cites the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning, which “considerably increased residential rental rates, leading to ‘spillover demand’ in adjacent neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant.”
Two alleged victims of gentrification in the Broadway Triangle area are named in the lawsuit. One tenant claims that, as the result of landlord harassment, he and his family are the last remaining residents of his building on Wallabout Street, a block from the Pfzier sites. Two residents in a neighboring building claim that their family received a notice back in December that their landlord, a Hasidic Jewish man, intends to evict them. All three of the plaintiffs, described as low-income Latinos, are “opposed to the growing segregation within the Broadway Triangle and want it to become available again to families of color,” the complaint says. Neither landlord immediately responded to a request for comment.
At the center of this case is the question of what exactly are the city’s obligations when dealing with rezoning. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to deny housing or otherwise make it unavailable to viable renters or buyers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. The city is also subject to the New York State Human Rights Law as well as the New York City Human Rights Law, which prohibit landlords from discriminating against “protected classes” of people.
But there’s some debate as to whether the city is obligated to consider potential impacts on neighborhood diversity when granting rezonings. In 2016, opponents of the East New York rezoning urged the city to conduct a study of its implications on fair housing in the area. The city responded that it was under no legal obligation to provide such an assessment. Critics of that decision say that the Fair Housing Act clearly states that recipients of federal housing funds have “an obligation to affirmatively further fair housing,” and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regulations say that this obligation means “taking meaningful actions that overcome patterns of segregation.”
“There’s clear case law from New York and elsewhere that shows, at a minimum, the city needs to look at the racial and segregative impact of a project before proceeding with it,” said Adam Meyers, a staff attorney with Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A.
“The City claims to have followed the City Environmental Quality Review requirements (CEQR) for the Pfizer Sites Rezoning which don’t involve looking at things like race and segregation,” Meyers later wrote in an email. “We also believe that the City will claim to fulfill its ‘affirmatively further fair housing’ obligation through other periodic, city-wide studies, but these studies are not considered with respect to particular rezonings, and thus don’t inform the City’s exercise of its zoning power.”
On May 29, a hearing will take place to see if this temporary restraining order can be turned into a preliminary injunction. Both are essentially provisional remedies to preserve the status quo while the lawsuit is pending, however a preliminary injunction would last longer than a restraining order. After that, the court will need to determine what exactly is required in the zoning process as far as furthering fair housing.
Update: A portion of Adam Meyers’s original quote was replaced with a revised version that added clarity.